There is no hiding the size of Peace Coffee and there is no hiding their influence. From their eco-friendly headquarters in South Minneapolis, the Peace Coffee team dispatches bike-riding messengers to bring fair-trade certified coffee to their numerous accounts in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
With one of the most marketable names in the industry, Peace Coffee has raised a consciousness in consumers about coffee and the ethics contained within the cup that wakes them up each morning. Built upon a platform of fair trade and organic beans, Peace Coffee has been given a stage by environmentally and ethically conscious companies such as the Wedge Co-op and Common Roots Cafe. As the company continues to grow, it raises the question: What is fair trade and where does this coffee come from?
Peace Coffee stepped into the coffee industry in 1996, with the goal of working with farmers to pay them a living wage. In 1998 TransFair USA was started, and in 1999 fair trade certification became available. This was in response to what is known as the “coffee crisis,” a time when the price of coffee was dropping rapidly, leaving coffee growers without a sustainable income to support their farms and families. The fair trade certification has become a cornerstone for companies like Peace Coffee and a symbol of ethics that is trusted by consumers.
At the Peace Coffee headquarters, Derek De La Paz (right), one of the three Peace Coffee roasters, tastes coffee. “When I taste I look for taints and defects, not just in the green, but in the roast,” says De La Paz, a Napa Valley-trained chef who was the executive chef at the Napa Valley Grille and did a short stint at Bouchon. De La Paz looks for taints and defects in the roast because all of the green coffee that is roasted is selected by Mane Alves of Coffee Lab International.
Coffees are selected by Alves and purchased by Cooperative Coffees, a North American green coffee buying co-op. Alves receives green coffee samples for Cooperative Coffees and makes selections for the company so that the individual members of the co-op do not have to take part in the selection process of green beans. “Peace Coffee was a founding member of Co-op Coffees and there are now over 22 members,” says Melanee Meegan, one of Peace Coffee’s veteran employees. Due to the size of Cooperative Coffees, Peace Coffee is not able to purchase coffee from individual farms. Instead, coffees are purchased from large farmer co-ops like the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, who De La Paz says, “is one of the larger co-ops, [with] about 10,000 members.”
Working with Cooperative Coffees has both advantages and disadvantages for Peace Coffee. The advantage is that they are able to positively effect a large number of farmers by consistently purchasing coffee from co-ops regardless of the quality of the product. “All of these products have value and it is difficult to have the product quality ebb and flow, but we trust our abilities as roaster to work with what we are given,” says De La Paz. The average price that Peace Coffee is paying their farmers is $2.15 per pound, a price that goes above the Fair Trade price, which fluctuates, but it is currently around $1.26 per pound. Peace Coffee brings this information to consumers by making their contracts available online.
The disadvantage of working with such a large scale importer and with origin co-ops is that they are not able to work directly with specific farms to create growing, harvesting, and processing improvements that directly influence and improve the quality of the cup. With co-ops ranging in size from 250 members at the CENFROCAFE Co-op in Peru to those with thousands of members to the co-ops in Ethiopia, it is difficult to make changes with individual farmers that will affect the overall product of the co-op. Although Peace Coffee does consistently travel to origin, visiting their co-ops at least once every two years, they do not have the same influence on cup quality because they are working with a larger number of growers.
Roasters such as Bull Run Roasting Company, Paradise Roasters, Black Sheep Coffee Cafe, and Reality Roasters work directly with importers or as importers to source coffee not only from co-ops, but also from specific farms. These companies have paid farmers prices that are not only above fair trade and Peace Coffee prices, but also reflective of the quality of the coffee and needs of the farmers. This is a roaster and farmer relationship that the industry has started to recognize as “direct trade.”
Peace Coffee says that they are doing the best that they can at origin with the size that they are. Peace Coffee is a macro roaster (roasting 500,000 pounds of coffee a year), compared to a micro roaster like Paradise Roasters, which roasts less than 100,000 pounds a year. “We focus our relationships on smaller organizations within larger co-ops so that we’re talking to both the people growing the coffee, and the cooperative managers who have the means to deliver the beans,” says Meegan.
In the roasting room Peace Coffee is working with a CR70 Diedrich, a roaster than can do 70 kilos (about 150 pounds) at full capacity per batch. “There is a sweet spot for every roaster and on this machine it is around 120 pounds,” says De La Paz. Coffees are roasted to different levels of darkness ranging from a light roast applied to some of their Ethiopian coffee to a full city roast which is lighter than a French roast. The Peruvian coffee from the CENFROCAFE co-op is a “very nutty coffee, with pecan and sweet walnut scents,” says De La Paz, who is a Specialty Coffee Association of America certified coffee cupper. One of Peace Coffee’s newest coffees (it’s not yet available), from the Poco Fundo Coop in Brazil, has a bright acidity with prominent fruit notes. This co-op is one of the smallest of the 16 farmer co-ops that Peace Coffee purchases from.
Like any business that balances customer satisfaction, profit, ecology, and ethics, Peace Coffee faces a complicated future — the company exists as a balancing act that must keep its footing in particularly uncertain times. But in many ways, the company is already ahead of some of its more conventional competitors; by making environmental and social impact integral to its mission, it anticipates a number of the trends that are shaping the future of coffee.